What to Look for in a Writing Workshop

- by Elaine Isaak

It seems that new writing workshops crop up every day–at least every week!  There are bootcamps, retreats, on-line seminars, master’s degrees and certificates, summer-long sessions, and local weekly events run by the only person in town who has tried to sell a book.

A google search on writing workshops brings back over eleven million results.  How is a writer to choose among them?

Writing workshops are the synthesis of three key points:  topic, teacher, and participants.  To figure out what’s right for you, you first have to examine your needs as a writer.  Where are you with your creative work?  Where are you with your writing career?  And perhaps most importantly, where do you aspire to be?  Then you narrow down the choices, and examine the workshops to determine which is most likely to get you there.

I’m a graduate of one long workshop (The Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop, a six-week graduate-level course for fantasy, science fiction and horror, where I’ll be returning as an instructor) and currently attending a shorter one (Superstars Writing Seminar, taught by some leading fantasy writers).   I went to Odyssey because I was a fledgling author.  I had some solid skills, others I needed work on.  I wanted to have the time to write in my selected genre, honing my craft in preparation to submit and hopefully sell fantasy novels.  I know my books would not be what they are–and likely would not have sold at all–without that workshop.  Each week covered a different element of fiction in depth, including visits from published author guests.  Good stuff for the new or intermediate author.  We did lots of our own writing, and lots of critiquing others.  It was a long, intense experience that introduced me to some of my writing mentors as well as my writing support network.

I chose the Superstars workshop for other reasons.  I’m now a mid-career writer, looking to build my career, and specifically, to make my new series start with a bang when it hits the bookstores next year.  Rather than seeking a workshop to write or read fiction, I wanted one with a business focus: how to build the career I want from the start that I already have.  Also, I wanted the opportunity to learn from and ask questions of authors who are already there–the people I want to be.  Not merely published, but blockbuster novelists.

So here are some things to think about as you seek a workshop:

1.  What do you need to learn right now as a writer?  Are you working on craft?  Stucture? Revision?  Do you just need the time or the impetus of a weekly deadline in order to write more?

2. How much time do you have to put into the class (not only class time, but homework reading or writing)? will you be committed to critiquing the work of other students or to reading assignments outside class?

3. What specific tools or information will help you to the next step in your career?  Even if you love the teacher, it may not be worth taking a class that’s not directed toward your goals.

4.  What does the specific author or instructor have to offer you?  Many instructors have published how-to books–buy them or borrow them to see if the approach stimulates you as a writer.

5.  what expectation would you have of your fellow students?  Is it useful for you to be in a peer group, to be the apprentice in a room of masters?  Do you seek networking, support, or student-bonding opportunities?

With the proliferation of workshops, I can just about guarantee there’s one out there for you!


One comments

  1. Great post, Elaine, and so on-target! You have to consider what you want to get out of a workshop before you go into the workshop. All are not created equal, and it depends on your needs at the time.

    My all-time favorite writing workshop was Michael Hauge’s 8-hour Story Mastery, recently sponsored by the New Jersey Romance Writers. Mr. Hauge provides a story structure that’s both useful and simple enough to remember without referring to my notes (of which I took 27 pages!). I find it especially useful when I am revising. He’s a very engaging teacher, so it was easy to remain attentive, even for such a long day.

    I also love April Kihlstrom’s Book in a Week, not because I would ever attempt to write a book in a week, but because she teaches you to turn off your evil Inner Critic for that first draft. She is very wise about how to keep your writing flowing.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking blog!